“And the days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations
Well, I have really good days…” ~Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mother Blues
That little snag of lyric there, one gem among many from Ray Wylie Hubbard’s album “Grifter’s Hymnal,” wormed its way into my head about when that album came out almost a decade ago, at a time when I really needed to learn that particular life lesson. Like most life lessons, sometimes it needs to be repeated in order to stick.
I was on a ride with the evergreen and wise Rick Sutton recently when he quoted it back at me. We were rolling a lap of Fort Ord in midsummer, on cyclocross bikes. Fort Ord, home of the Sea Otter Classic, the race that Rick founded some thirty years ago now (jeeezus, I had to double check. Am I really that old? So soon? Damn …), is a sprawling old military base just inland from Monterey, California that now exists as a National Monument. There are 86 miles of trails there, and counting, and those trails are sandy, poison oaky and hilly in a sort of innocuous way that makes you think it’s not that hilly until you are bonking somewhere around the 30 mile mark. They are not generally the trails that you cast your mind toward when fantasizing about your next mountain bike getaway.
But, for better or worse, those are the closest trails to home for me nowadays (if you don’t count the janky blast furnace shitshow of badly aligned and infinitely more poison oak festooned trails that some friends and I have hacked out here behind my house), so that is where I ride most of the time. I have spent a lifetime looking down my nose at the trails in Fort Ord, ever since the first time, at the very first Sea Otter, when I blew sky high trying to keep up with the rest of the expert class on the second of those old 16-mile laps. “This isn’t mountain biking” I thought to myself, cross-eyed, fighting off the urge to throw up, as my wheels plowed into the sand at a crawl. So, I register a note of irony every time I feel the bike drift into the first few loose turns of every ride there now.
For most of my adult life, ever since mountain biking infected my ability to think rationally, I have chosen where I lived based on the proximity of Very Good singletrack. Santa Cruz, Downieville, Truckee. All chosen because the riding was awesome. And my travel, both within the US and around the world, has similarly been defined by this same yardstick. I’ve made some very questionable life decisions as a result of this, lived out some very bizarre consequences and compromises, and I regret absolutely none of them. The trails were all totally worth it. At least I wasn’t stuck riding Fort Ord, I thought…
Thing is, I have also had the privilege of riding a whole lot of places where the riding opportunities are downright grim. And, with that gift of perspective, I have come to realize that based on the total spectrum of trail riding possibilities, Fort Ord isn’t bad at all. In fact, it’s pretty sweet.
The “problem” with Fort Ord is that it doesn’t really fit with the modern progressive identity of mountain biking. The trails in Fort Ord snake for miles and miles, up, down, through oak groves, along manzanita corridors, swooping from forest to open space and back, in a pleasant and easily accessible way that is, by and large, pretty damn fun. 86 miles of singletrack, just meandering around in the woods. Nothing too steep up, nothing too steep down. If you don’t know where to look for the jump lines, you’d probably never know there’s anywhere in the whole 14,000 or so acres of the place that you could really get your wheels off the ground. No 3000-foot screaming alpine descents. No rock gardens of certain death. No massive doubles. By the progressive barometer of modern mountain biking, Fort Ord lacks radness.
Topographically, and in terms of soil texture and trail layout, Fort Ord reminds me a lot of a hillier, bigger version of the Switchgrass trails in Kansas, only there’s not a sweet lake to swim in. This is where context and location can really mess with perspective. When I got turned on to the Switchgrass trails, driving back from Arkansas a few years ago, I felt like I had discovered El Dorado. There in the forsaken emptiness of I-70, a solid day’s drive east of where the Rockies break up the high plains, a solid day, maybe two, northwest of the manufactured radness of Bentonville, lies this beautiful oasis of fun singletrack. No, it’s not the kind of place that’ll flex out your 160mm-plus travel all-mountain rig. But it is singletrack, and lots of it, in a place where you might not otherwise ever think to even flick off the cruise control as you hammer arrow straight down the freeway, eyes glazed.
If you live in that part of Kansas, or southern Nebraska, Switchgrass is mana from heaven. I live in a part of Monterey county where we just logged five days in a row of temperatures over 100 degrees. Forty minutes to the west of me, in Marina, at the western edge of Fort Ord, the daily highs were in the 60s. Fort Ord, you sweet charmer you, let’s go for a ride!
So, I was on this ride with Rick Sutton, who has graciously forgiven me for some of the hyperbolic shit I talked about his race and Fort Ord over the years. And we were laughing and hooting as our skinny cross bike front tires slid along the edges of blue groove ruts or knifed alarmingly in the sand, and just straight up having way too much fun for a couple old dudes who should be working on a Thursday instead of buzzing tires on Trail 50. And while Fort Ord may not inspire any big bike, full-travel mashing shredits, trying to dice those trails fast on a cross bike makes them feel EPIC. As we rolled down toward a couple ice cold beers at the end of our ride, I remarked that I was maybe beginning to form a new appreciation for the blown out sandpits, the poison oak forests, the ledgy, concrete-hard braking chop.
“You know,” said Rick, with a wry smile, “the days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”
Amen to that.